City Councilman James Kenney introduced legislation on Thursday to void the mayor’s unilateral powers to appeal contract arbitration outcomes involving the city’s firefighters, paramedics and police.
The measure would take the form of a Home Rule Charter amendment and would require an affirmative vote of city residents on a future Election Day referendum to become law.
Leaders of the city’s firefighters and paramedics union, Local 22, initiated the charter change effort on July 22 with the support of many of the city’s political and labor leaders. The coalition acted in response to the lengthy and costly legal challenges waged by Mayor Michael Nutter against raises and other benefits awarded to Local 22 members through arbitration in 2010 and again last year.
While one state law, Act 111 of 1968, prevents firefighters, paramedics or police from going on strike while granting them the right to binding arbitration, a separate state law, the PICA Act of 1991, grants the city certain rights to appeal Act 111 arbitration outcomes.
As the Nutter administration appealed the 2010 and 2012 arbitration awards, the city’s 1,900 firefighters and paramedics worked more than four years without a contract. City Controller Alan Butkovitz has said that the appeals cost the city almost $1 million in private legal fees.
On Sept. 6, Nutter announced that he would withdraw the latest appeal and pay the raises and benefits awarded to Local 22 members in 2012. But the union and Kenney, along with several of his council colleagues, are now trying to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself in future contract arbitrations.
“I think we need to have a discussion why an individual CEO of a company — the mayor [in this case] — has the ability to spend close to a million dollars in legal fees, paid for by the taxpayers, with no consultation with the board of directors, i.e. City Council,” Kenney said during a Thursday news conference outside council’s City Hall chambers. “If that was done in a private company, there would be hell to pay with that kind of expenditure.”
Kenney introduced two specific measures on Thursday: a resolution proposing the Home Rule Charter amendment to council, and an ordinance creating the public referendum on the charter change question. The resolution contains the specific language of the proposed amendment, while the ordinance contains the language of the proposed ballot question. Under the proposal, any future appeals involving Act 111 arbitration would require council approval by a two-thirds vote, as well as the mayor’s administrative approval.
Local 22 President Joe Schulle thanked the official co-sponsors of the legislation, council members Dennis O’Brien, Brian O’Neill, Bobby Henon and Mark Squilla as well as Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell for supporting the initiative.
In conjunction with the legislation, Local 22 delivered to council notarized petitions containing more than 35,000 signatures of city residents who support the charter change. Union members gathered many of the signatures as did council members, many of the city’s state-level elected officials and private-sector unions.
In July, charter change proponents discussed a scenario by which the referendum could make it onto the November general election ballot. But Kenney’s aide, James Engler, told the Northeast Times that the May primary election is now the target.
Before then, the measures would have to pass council’s Law and Government Committee and be read before the full council on two separate sessions, Engler said. If passed by the full council, Nutter might choose to veto the legislation, which would then return to council needing 12 votes to override the mayor. Kenney is looking forward to a public hearing on the proposal.
The Nutter administration has said it opposes the charter change.
“We introduced a bill to have a hearing and a transparent discussion about why decisions were made to move forward the way they did,” Kenney said on Thursday. “We make no prediction on the outcome of the bill being in committee or on the floor. But I think a public, open and transparent hearing is called for based on the amount that was spent to fight this arbitration award.”
In light of its unsuccessful appeals of the 2012 arbitration award, the city is now on the hook for large lump-sum payments to Local 22 members and their health fund. Union members will be paid wages retroactively, about $5,000 per member on average, while the city’s monthly contributions into the health fund will jump from $1,270 per union member to $1,620. Union members will also start paying higher co-payments for medical visits and prescriptions.
The Nutter administration says the 2012 arbitration award will cost the city $210 million over the next five years. ••